Jodee Blanco is the author of Please Stop Laughing at Me . . . One Woman's Inspirational Story.
Happy New Year! No, it's not January yet. But for me, the New Year begins in early autumn, when school reconvenes. I love the ritual of buying new school supplies, the smell of erasers and freshly sharpened pencils, my husband and I helping our kids with their homework, while our dogs are curled up on the couch watching us and smiling (yes, our pets really can smile). But I didn't always feel that way about September. When I was a student, like so many other kids today, I was often shunned and picked on by my classmates simply for being different. One of my teachers, though well-intentioned, made my situation worse. Another, a kindred spirit, knew just what to do. As we navigate the dawn of yet another school year, I thought now would be the perfect opportunity to share what they taught me.
One day in English class, a group of girls began verbally abusing me. Our teacher, Mr. Stein, a strict disciplinarian, chastised them in front of everyone, and then banished them to the principal's office, where they were issued detentions. Later that week, those same girls assaulted me near the bus stop in retaliation, pelting my face with tiny, jagged stones. I know that Mr. Stein thought he was doing the right thing, but in the end, all he managed to accomplish was make a bunch of angry kids angrier, and give them a specific target for their revenge. He also elevated their social status because if you pick on someone considered an outcast and get in trouble for it, it only makes you "cooler" in the eyes of your peers.
Not too long after this incident, a couple of other girls from the same clique named Sharon and A.J. started harassing me in social studies. Rather than removing them from the classroom, our teacher Mrs. Swenson discreetly removed me from the situation by asking me to help her get something from the computer lab. While we were out in the hall, she took me into her confidence and described how she intended to discipline Sharon and A.J. Then she asked for my input. When you're a bullied student, sometimes you feel like everyone else has control over your life except you. It can take away your dignity. We all know Mrs. Swenson was going to do what she thought best regardless of my opinion, but just by asking for it, she gave me some of my dignity back.
She also taught me a lesson in compassion, letting me know in no uncertain terms that she was going to reach out to A.J. and Sharon with kindness and caring, that her objective was to help all of us. Later that day, Mrs. Swenson and a couple of A.J. and Sharon's other teachers whom she enlisted to participate, had a quiet talk with the girls. Without mentioning any names specifically, they asked them why they were being so rough on some of their other classmates. During that conversation, Mrs. Swenson discovered that A.J. had recently been through a horrible family tragedy that was causing her to act out in school. Mrs. Swenson felt life had already punished A.J. enough, so she opted for compassionate discipline.
She required that A.J. and Sharon each go out of their way every day for two weeks to do one nice thing for someone else. Every evening, they had to write down one paragraph about what they did, one paragraph on how the recipient of the good deed responded, and one paragraph on how that response made them feel. Each recipient had to sign and date their entry and write down their phone number, so Mrs. Swenson could make a few calls to verify the girls' honest compliance. A.J. and Sharon had to hand in their entries to Mrs. Swenson at the end of both weeks. Mrs. Swenson taught them the joy of being kind, as opposed to traditional punishment, such as detention or suspension, which would have only emphasized the consequences of being cruel. At the conclusion of those two weeks, there was a marked difference in the girls' behavior. A.J. actually apologized to me and several other of her victims. And Sharon, all these years later is a special education teacher, working with the very types of students she used to taunt and tease when we were in school together.
Mrs. Swenson understood something that I wish every educator in America would embrace. Each act of discipline must provide an opportunity for the student to discover their own compassion and develop it as they would a muscle. As adults in the education system, it's our job to create those opportunities.
Here's another example. A child pulls the legs off of a frog. You can tell him it's bad to do that, but that's not enough. Kids need to learn why it's bad. What should you do? Take the child to an animal shelter for a day. Create the opportunity for the child to discover his own compassion, by seeing for himself the pain that has been inflicted on animals by acts of cruelty; and affording him the joy and reward of doing a good thing -- volunteering for an afternoon or a day helping the veterinarians there.
Remember, the bully is bleeding too. Engage not only your own compassion in dealing with that bully, but also be curious, find out what's wrong. Bullying is a symptom, not a disease. All children, no matter how much they may misbehave have goodness inside them. The more you blindly punish, the more you bury that goodness. Bury it too far, and those children will never know the empathy, kindness and compassion that lives within their hearts.